Release Date: January 9, 2017 (Limited and VOD)
Director: Domenica Cameron-Scorsese
Runtime: 90 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
The phrase “economic anxiety” has been poisoned and highly weaponized by the recent wellspring of political discourse inspired by the present administration, and I wonder if we know what that means any longer.
The family unit at the center of the flaccid dramedy by Domenica Cameron-Scorsese (yes that Scorsese) seems to be a textbook case of feeling anxious over the disparaging swings the economy has taken in recent years but without any of the consequences you’d expect. Both adult sons are out of work and have moved back in with their elderly, put-upon parents: the father living off of a disappointing pension and the mother having swallowed her pride and reentered the workforce.
The real estate crash (we are told, as this is a period piece I guess) has instigated all these drastic lifestyle changes, yet finances are never brought up as issues. Poverty is such a non-threat that it’s not even entertained as a possibility for this middle-class, white family. Almost Paris has a damning problem: the lack of tangible economic conflict that the script tiptoes around makes it boring and weightless.
I am getting ahead of myself; Almost Paris begins with reintroducing big-city financial adviser Max (Wally Marzano-Lesnevich) into the rustic confines of his parents’ suburban home in non-specific Small Town, USA, after the mortgage-lending crisis resulted in his layoff. A glib, sarcastic waif, he rejoins the household as a supposed fish-out-of-water whose previous six-figure income and fiscal success has made it impossible for him to acclimate to the guileless charms of his new surroundings.
As small towns are the heart of America, you see, someone in the “1 percent” like Max, who directly benefited from the financial turn, must have a dulled sense of empathy and be internally obstructed from reopening old connections. As he makes himself at home, he stumbles at interacting with his estranged niece, persistently fails at a rekindling an old romance and awkwardly hangs with his best bud from high school, the dynamics of which are meant to inform us that he’s tragically lost a sense of humanity. Alas, this redemption arc never elicits any investment.
Perhaps Marzano-Lesnevich’s vacant recitation of stiff, halting dialogue is what prevents this film from resonating with its message of economic empathy. There is no detectable personality in either the robotic performances or the garrulous script, committing the No. 1 sin of low-budget indies: assuming that accumulating hundreds of minor, inconsequential details for a character is the same thing as writing a character. The best bud from high school – in his extended rants about how pop culture peaked in the 1990s and in his speech, featuring a preponderance of ’90s rap slang, despite being a 40-year-old man in 2010s – is a prime example of how lazy indie films work around the need for character development.
Everyone in the main household has these personality quirks without having much else, and when a film like this demands incessant jaw-jacking about nothing in particular, the film gets insufferably boring and repetitive. Even Max who has the film’s one certifiable character arc of ingratiating himself to the machinations of Small Town, USA, is undercut by the wooden, lifeless performance of actor-writer Marzano-Lesnevich.
The “almost Paris” of the film’s title refers to a late-act plot point of the put-upon heads of the household not being able to afford a trip to Paris and, again, the lateness of this detail and its utter non-consequence rob it from being a point of drama or emotion. Even when Max, who has settled for being a loan officer at Small Town’s one bank and has to deny his own father’s request for a pension buyout, the film has the affective impact of a feather wafting its way down to the ground.
Economic anxiety cannot be expressed or bought about because Cameron-Scorsese treats conflict with deft distance. As if she is terrified to disrupt the idyllic charms of the white middle class in nondescript America with pesky doses of financial reality, she paints the mortgage crisis in loose strokes that relay little to the audience in terms of perspective and leave the film bland, boring and devoid of meaning. There is no drama here because they live in a fantasy world where the loss of income has no tangible negative effects, and that’s a delusion to the point of insanity.
They remain insulated in their stagnant, middle-class bubble and, despite one of them being directly responsible for swindling people of the lower class with bloated promises of amiable mortgage rates, we are meant to shed a tear at the prospect of the parents not getting to go to Paris. Maybe five years ago this ill-conceived, nothing dramedy could have found an audience, but in a world that is post-The Big Short, this had no chance.